Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Bulldozer


They say that everyone ends up like their parents or at least one of their parents and for me I believe that is true with regards to the ideas I have had for this farm.  My father had lots of business ideas, most of them did not work out and he had to pull back on several of them.  He only made money with his tugboat company and regarding farming he tried everything from cattle to catfish even farming eels for the Japanese market.  But the only thing from which he ever profited on his farm was hogs so he said.  So it is with me as I keep shifting gears on my farm here trying to find someway to make it pay.


With this history behind me I came up with what I can now call the ridiculous idea to plant a vineyard on the mountain where I live.  I say ridiculous because the only people I have found here in Virginia to profit from grapes are those who invest in a winery or who plant a lot of grapes.  I’ve invested in a winery buying stock in The Winery at LaGrange an investment which has done well.  But as for growing grapes I’ve decided it is better to do that for someone else and let them pay me by the hour.  Then I will make money regardless of the circumstances and the owner can worry about the birds, hail, subzero-weather, raccoons, or whatever malady may befall the vineyard.


A lot of people are smitten with the idea of having their own rolling vista of grapes and aspire to have their own vineyard without realizing how difficult that can be.  I can tell you it is not for the faint of heart nor for the city dweller who does not like to work outdoors in the heat nor cold.  So it was with five years of experience planting grapes that I briefly thought about having my own vineyard until common sense prevailed and events overtook me changing my mind.  My 65 acre farm is ideally situated for that with a southeastern exposure and elevation rising from 600 to 1,000 feet.  The proposed vineyard site would have been ideal, rising above the frost, giving me three extra weeks of growing time over those vineyards down in the valleys or flat fields.  But the problem with this site is it covered with trees which would need to be excavated.  For that I would need a bulldozer.


I have already mentioned my investment in The Winery at LaGrange.  When Chris Pearmund and his partners started to clear the land, they bought bought an International Harvester bulldozer.  The partners there took turns driving it around and were as giddy as a bunch of school boys with their new machine. Chris tells the humorous story of clearing a bush or tree from near the old manor house.  That obstacle had to go but there was a hot power line overhead in the way.  No one wanted to drive the bulldozer, which of course is made of steel, underneath the power line thus grounding the machine and one’s self to the electric grid.  So Chris powered up the dozer, pointed it in the right direction, and dove off as the machine approached the bush and electric wire then hopped right back onboard in time to steer it away from crashing into the building.  I wonder how he could have done as the tracks would have been moving thus threatening to grind the bones and flesh of anyone who tried to do that into the dirt.


After the winery finished with the bulldozer I bought it for $8,000.  I thought that was a steal but I didn’t realize that they had employed a full-time mechanic which a bulldozer really needs, full-time.  Chris had paid more than that for the dozer and then had to replace a hydraulic pump deep inside the bowels of the monster.  To split the machine apart to replace one individual pump cost $8,000.  With that pump newly renovated I would not have to worry about that cost I assumed.


I had the idea that  I would use the dozer to clear the trees from 8 acres of forest on the mountain above my land.  I thought I could use a cable and then drive the dozer downhill using the momentum of the machine to snatch heavy stumps from the ground.  The area where I wanted to plant my vineyard was a 15 degree slope which is a little steep but not too steep to operate machinery.  So this seemed reasonable.  I hired a logger to log the farm and thought he could cut clear cut this area.  But as you can read in this other essay I could find no logger to cut each and every tree off my vineyard site.  Also the money that I got from logging my farm was not enough to plant an 8 acre vineyard which had been my plan.


So now I had a bulldozer to drive around the farm and nothing to use it for having scrapped my vineyard plans.  .


The statement that “you learn everything the hard way” certainly has been true for me.  I learned that my bulldozer was not a bulldozer at all but a “loader”.  This meant it was mainly for digging and not pushing things over or grading.  I learned that when I tried to fix my driveway.  I had spent $6,000 hauling gravel up onto my driveway when my insurance company threatened to cut off my coverage unless I put down a solid 1/3 mile footing for the fireman’s heavy water-laden truck.  After a time the driveway formed ruts from vehicle traffic so I found that smaller cars could not climb the hill without bottoming out.  A learned this when a reporterette from a local newspaper who had come to interview me walked up the hill with her photographer in tow.  Of course I was eager that such pretty young women be able to drive up and see me when they wanted so I proceeded to grade the driveway with the loader.


A loader has a bucket in front that you can lift high overhead to pick up and move dirt.  A dozer has a blade to smooth out the landscape which cannot be lifted in the air.   The bucket on my loader had teeth instead of a smooth edge so when I went to fix the middle hump in my driveway it gouged out holes.  The loader was so big it felt like navigating a boat as I proceeded to carve up my driveway.  I could scarcely see in front of me so I could not tell if the bucket was smoothing out the dirt or churning up the same.  The loader cut groves in the driveway and I only made it worse as I raised and lowered the bucket trying to steer a smooth course.  My driveway ended up rougher than ever.  My kids in the back of my pickup truck fairly bounced off the ceiling as I drove up and down the farm from that point forward.  For months the ride was so rough that I soon abandoned the driveway preferring to navigate through the pasture instead.


I finally found a logger who rescued me by both logging my forest and repairing my driveway so it was again suitable for truck traffic.  Then I pointed the loader at 6 acres of woods that had been pasture many years ago and proceeded to bulldoze it flat.


An off-the-road bulldozer has a track with a metal blade perpendicular to the same.  So as the track moves the dozer hugs the ground and digs itself in.  But my dozer had street tracks with no perpendicular blade.  With its 60 horse power diesel engine it could push down small trees but not big ones because instead of digging down into the earth the tracks just spun.  I pushed over 6 acres of hard woods and pine trees—including one which bounced off the roof of the dozer careening above my head—but could not move the biggest trees nor grade the soil to my satisfaction.  Unlike Bill who had logged my farm I did not have much patience so I just drove the heavy noisy machine all over the place rolling over sapling and bush alike.  I pried the front grill lose from the machine and knocked the smokestack off.  When I was done the pasture looked more like a moonscape littered with piles of trees than a smooth landscape ready to plant to grass.  So Bill the logger rescued me again when I paid him $2,000 to clean up the huge mess I had made.


The left clutch on the dozer failed so I could only make right-hand turns which was OK since I could still get where I wanted to go as long as I went there in a circle.  A couple of water hoses wore out and the  air cleaner needing replacing for which I  paid the winery mechanic $900.  So with my pasture where I wanted I gave the dozer away free to someone simply if them agreed to haul it away.  In all I don’t consider this adventure a waste of time as I did get the land I needed cleared for $8,000 + $2,000 + $900 = $10,900 which after all was a reasonable price.

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